“Is oil worth our health?”
This is the crucial question posed by architect and environmentalist Kate Orff in her contribution to the book “Petrochemical America”, a timely collaboration with photographer Richard Misrach. The photographs that spurred Orff and Misrach’s partnership, a series entitled “Cancer Alley”, are on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Center for the Arts through June 16.
Orff’s query cannot be ignored, as the intensity of debate surrounding the related topics of energy consumption and independence, environmental stewardship, and national health concerns raised during the bruising 2012 election cycle attests. Campaign rhetoric and bluster aside, one fact is plainly evident: Americans must temper our tastes to what the petrochemical industrial giants provide.
With “Cancer Alley”, Richard Misrach shows us the consequences that come with certain popular goods – plastic products, natural gas, and refined oil – and our insatiable tastes for them. Misrach was commissioned by Atlanta’s High Museum of Art to contribute to “Picturing the South,” a project initiated in 1996 to deliver contemporary photographic views of southern subjects. Other photographers tapped to contribute to the series include Dawoud Bey, Martin Parr, Sally Mann, Alex Soth and more recently, Kael Alford and Shane Lavalette. Misrach chose the Mississippi River industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans – a 150 mile span that has been exploited relentlessly by the oil industry since the 1960s and is known alternately as the River Road, Chemical Corridor, and Cancer Alley – to examine human impact upon the landscape, and the detrimental effects of industrial pollution upon the region’s inhabitants.
The relationship between humankind and the landscape is one of Misrach’s longstanding concerns, beginning with “Desert Cantos” and continuing through the series “Golden Gate and On the Beach”. For each series Misrach dedicated significant amounts of time, often years, to photographing sites of interaction between humans and nature. His series “On the Beach”, for example, shows how the natural and constructed spaces we inhabit can become the sites of our greatest isolation. In returning to “Cancer Alley” years after his initial commission, Misrach sought to document how the land had changed, and with Orff’s participation, identify strategies that will help Americans reverse the degradation that continues nearly unchecked.
Misrach’s large format compositions, many suffused with flat, cool light, present the southern Louisiana landscape both as it is was – sultry and evocative – and as it now, slowly decaying thanks to a permissive political and economic infrastructure that ignores the misconduct of companies including Exxon Mobile Corporation, Royal Dutch Shell, and British Petroleum (BP).
In “Swamp and the Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana”, we see that collision of nature and industry in the stagnant, sickly green water, denuded trees, and finally the thick pipeline that like the surrounding swamp, is eroding before our eyes. Similarly, the image “Norco Cumulus Cloud” captures a daily phenomenon in which atmospheric moisture comingles with the volatile hydrocarbons emitted during the oil refinement process, which form what resemble puffy white clouds but are in fact much more threatening. What is striking about the single-point composition, particularly at this large scale, was how Misrach’s choice renders the long stretch of empty land as typologically similar to views of the National Mall in Washington DC, or the majestic walk toward the Taj Mahal. Yet instead of architectural monuments in the distance, it is a mammoth industrial complex. After all, this is perhaps the region’s enduring legacy.
The human footprint along Cancer Alley is everywhere evident in Misrach’s work, but the presence of the people living in the region is minimized. People appear in only a few exhibited photographs. In one instance, we see a woman in the foyer of a historic plantation house as she looks out the window. Standing with her back to the camera, this woman who is identified as a tour guide, could represent the thousands of Americans who live in the region. These people are working to survive while their health and economic woes go unacknowledged. In “Night Fishing, Near Bonnet Carré Spillway”, we see a man engaged in a familiar American pastime. However, this otherwise classic figure is utterly dwarfed by the passing cargo ship and refinery in the near distance. This image, hung opposite a photo of the restored slave cabins on the Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana raises deeply troubling questions about the historic and contemporary disenfranchised upon whose backs financial gain has been borne.
The Cantor Center installation at Stanford is the only West Coast presentation of Misrach’s latest work. It is fitting that audiences living in as beautiful a location as northern California should see how the lifestyle choices we make shape and are shaped by those living in the center of petrochemical America. For that reason, it was very disappointing not to see more of Kate Orff’s contributions included in the exhibition.
Orff’s detailed schematic drawings, here limited to two small displays situated along one wall of the gallery, help fill in the details of how the dire situation along the Mississippi River came to pass, in writing that is compelling enough to spur most thinking individuals to action. Without that additional information, the exhibition is exactly what Orff and Misrach hoped to avoid – an installation of beautiful, haunting imagery that certainly lingers in the mind, but does little to inform or incite.
Taken as a whole, the photographs comprising “Cancer Alley “capture key aspects of the cultural and environmental milieu of the southern United States. The images are overwhelmed by industry, reminding viewers of concerns raised in Alan Weisman’s prescient book, “The World Without Us”. As Weisman writes, the earth will return to a pristine state in short order if humankind ceased to exist. In that scenario, the land will have its own way, much as the waters will as Mark Twain once wrote of the Mississippi River. Through Misrach and Orff’s collaboration, contemporary audiences are given a first-hand account of how and where that reckoning will unfold. At that point, any remaining worries about what we are willing to sacrifice in the name of material comforts will be the least of our collective concerns.
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-Contributed by Roula Seikaly